This article examines three voyages of the late 1840s to advance the argument that emigration – often treated by its historians as ‘spontaneous’ – actually involved the laissez-faire mid-Victorian imperial state in significant projects of social engineering. The tale of the Virginius exemplifies that state's commitment to taking advantage of the Famine to convert the Irish countryside into an export economy of large-scale graziers. The tale of the Earl Grey exemplifies its commitment to transforming New South Wales into a conspicuously moral colony of free settlers. The tale of the Arabian exemplifies its commitment to saving plantation society in the British Caribbean from the twin threats posed by slave emancipation and free trade in sugar. These voyages also show how the British imperial state's involvement in immigration frequently immersed it in ethical controversy. Its strictly limited response to the Irish Famine contributed to mass death. Its modest effort to create better lives in Australia for a few thousand Irish orphans led to charges that it was dumping immoral paupers on its most promising colonies. Its eagerness to bolster sugar production in the West Indies put ‘liberated’ slaves in danger.